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Recently, a number of Rabbis have been quick to drop the H (heresy) bomb. Anyone who is seen by these people to be on the wrong side of their understanding of the halacha, of what these self-appointed guardians of the faith see as what Jewish traditions and values demand of us, is automatically ostracized as being beyond the pale. Those who think a bit differently than them, or behave a bit more leniently, are quickly labeled as “rebels”, “heretics”, “beyond the pale of Orthodoxy and tradition”, "anti-Torah", etc. I’d like to take a look at this worrying approach, using a few verses from this week’s parsha.
Parshat Re’eh, like so much of the material in the book of Devarim, contains Moshe’s exhortations to the people of Israel to do the right thing. All through the book, Moshe, just before his death, warns the nation against breaking the laws of the Torah, and explains, in often harrowing detail, what will happen to them if they do.
Re’eh begins with a typically binary statement: “Behold, I place before you today the blessing and the curse. The blessing, if you heed the Mitzvot of the Lord your God, which I command you today. And the curse, if you do not heed the Mitzvot of the Lord your God, and go off the path which I command to you today…” There is clearly an either/or option here: do the mitzvoth, you get the blessing. Break the commandments, you will be cursed.
The obvious question is: well, fair enough, but life is not like that. Most of us do some mitzvoth, sin a bit, fail to do all the things we should be doing, but manage to get some of it right. Very few of us are on either one side or the other of this equation – complete sinners, not heeding the Torah, or totally righteous, doing all the Mitzvot; most of us are somewhere in the middle. How, then, can the Torah describe things in such an either/or fashion, as if we will either be good, and therefore blessed, or bad, and therefore cursed?
I would add that this Shabbat is Rosh Chodesh Elul, which means we are only one month away from Rosh Hashanah. As is well known, we are all judged on Rosh Hashanah, and the tradition tells us that most, if not all of us are, in fact, somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of sinning and doing the right thing, between the blessing and the curse, and, therefore, on the Day of Judgment, our actions are weighed up, measured, and, hopefully, are found to be weighted on the side of the mitzvoth. This traditional understanding further complicates our verses, as it underscores that our lives are not black and white, but, rather, some shade of gray, and it is precisely that gray area in which we find ourselves during Elul, Rosh Hashanah, and the Ten Days of Penitence leading up to Yom Kippur; trying to rectify the wrongs we have done, do more good things, and tip the scales of divine justice in our favor. Why, then, does the Torah, in these verses, simply assign all of us to good or bad, blessed or cursed, and create an oversimplified blessed/cursed dichotomy, when the reality is so much more complex?
The answer may be found in the strange coda to the second, “curse”, verse quoted above: “And the curse, if you do not heed the Mitzvot of the Lord your God, and go off the path which I command to you today, to follow other gods, whom you do not know.” This last phrase seems out of place. After all, the Torah is looking at the entire body of commandments, and promising blessing for keeping them, curses for not; why focus, suddenly, on the specific sin of following strange gods?
Rashi (France, 11th century), solves the problem this way: “This teaches you that he who does idol worship is as if he has gone off the entire path on which Israel was commanded to go. From this the Rabbis derive that whoever believes in idol worship is as one who has denied the entire Torah”. In other words, this final phrase about worshipping other gods is the trigger for placing people into the “cursed” category – along with its equivalent, denying the entire Torah. This understanding shows us that the either/or, “blessed/cursed” option is really not relevant for the vast majority of us, who have not decided to follow other gods, or denied the entire Torah. Most people, trying to do more good than harm, hoping to get it right even though we fail often enough to do so, are in a different, more fluid and complex reality; doing the best we can in a demanding world, where we often make mistakes, fall short, and get it wrong, neither obviously or immediately blessed or cursed, just trying our best.
This is a bigger - and timelier - lesson than it might seem. Our verses teach us that the black and white, good and evil dichotomy is reserved for the extreme cases of those who really have left their Jewish identities behind, by worshipping idols, or completely denying the Torah and its commandments. That’s what it takes for the simple equation which the verse describes to kick in: keep the commandments, be blessed; break them, be cursed. The rest of us, who have not given up on God or the Torah, are in the middle, doing some commandments, failing at or misunderstanding others, but that does not get us a “cursed” rating. Rather, those people – just about all of us – will, hopefully do more good than harm, more mitzvot that transgressions, and muddle through, from Rosh Hashanah to Rosh Hashanah, when God will figure out what our complicated lives and decisions really all add up to. The speed and vigor with which so many Rabbis and poskim are ready to condemn as cursed those who are less than perfect – in fact, those who simply disagree with them about one or another halachic position, and might, in fact, be doing the right thing! - is clearly at odds with the Torah’s outlook, and is, itself, not in line with the Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Shimon Felix